Alex Michaelides, The Maidens (2021)

Our rating: ★★★☆☆

360 pages read by Berit in March 2023
9h 20m listened at Audible by Maj in March 2023

Why did we read this book?

In the beginning of the year, Berit started to get out of her latest reading slump with a modern gothic novel. Following this, she had dived more into “dark academia”, a relatively young label for books that explore academic life and the shadow sides of it, often in the form of murder mysteries. The question of whether “dark academia” will emerge as a new genre remains to be answered. In any case, Berit was intrigued enough to have a look at popular “dark academia” books. Michaelides’ novel often popped up in this context, and the idea of a thriller set at Cambridge that draws on Greek tragedies and mythology seemed like a good mix. A coincidental visit at the local library together brought the novel into Berit’s hand – and Maj’s ears.

What is the book about?

The protagonist in The Maidens is Mariana, a recently widowed group therapist based in London. One evening, she gets an upsetting call from her niece Zoe, an English literature student at Cambridge. Zoe tells Mariana that the body of a student has been found – as it turns out, Zoe’s friend Tara has been murdered. Mariana travels to Cambridge to support her niece and starts investigating the case. There, Mariana meets the charismatic professor Edward Fosca, who teaches Greek tragedy and has a group of students under his tutelage who call themselves “the maidens”. As Mariana deals with her own grief and the troubling things happening at Cambridge when more students are murdered, Fosca gets more and more suspicious of Mariana as the murderer in this case.

How did we experience the text?

Maj nearly binge-listened through the book and finished it within two days. Partly because she was a bit upset with the rather slow start of the story, which forced her to continue listening, and partly because she was intrigued to find out, why Berit had recommended this book in the first place. The narrators of the audiobook, Kobna Holdbrook-Smith and Louise Breadly, pleased Maj and especially the shift in voices between a male and female one, made her wonder about the reasoning of this for the plot. More often than not, Maj guessed along while listening and was certain she had solved the case. As with any successful thriller, she remained in the wrong until the very end. When the twist finally shed light on how things really went down at Cambridge, Maj was surprised to say the least. She could not wait to hear Berit’s thoughts on who had committed the murders. Berit blamed, similarly to Maj, everyone to be the villain and came up with very interesting reasoning behind her theories – clearly entertaining Maj, who could recognize her own thought patterns. A major difference between listening to the audiobook and reading the book was the clue given by choice of the narrator’s voice in specific chapters, which Berit was not provided with. It remains unclear to us whether this changed our respective experience of the plot altogether, but it certainly gave Maj a clue which excluded some possible plot twists. We agreed that the twist was both surprising and somewhat illogical, and the latter was not helped by the fact that the book ended very abruptly, leaving us in a way with a sensation of dissatisfaction. The lack of exploration of the repercussions and consequences of the twist fell a bit short. Since the whole book had a somewhat slow build-up, we had both wished for a deeper dive into the psychology and history behind the twist. This dragged the book down a bit, and we agreed on ranking the book as a 3 out of 5, which we would describe as a solid but not exactly overwhelmingly good read. Still, not the worst first book to read together – and we might pick up Michaelides’ debut novel The Silent Patient next.